This article from the Economist says a lot about the infrastructure revolution happening in China. In addition to just opening the longest high speed rail line in the world, the Chinese government is embarking on a plan to connect Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, to it's rapidly expanding motorway system. I have mixed feeling about this kind of infrastructure, especially in a place like Tibet. You gotta admit though that the Chinese think big - I can't imagine that building 4-lane highways through the Himalayas will be cheap!
I recently moved neighbourhoods in Toronto. I was living in an older inner city area near the lake, but the opportunity to housesit for someone and not pay rent for a while beckoned, so I'm in an area well north of downtown that I recall from my childhood as being suburban, but that has changed drastically since then. I've taken some shots walking and in my car since moving up here; it's really quite astounding how a place that 25 years ago was bungalows and strip plazas has transformed itself, though not always in good ways. This area, Willowdale, seems to have morphed into an unusual hodgepodge of city and suburbia without the clear benefits of either. The roads remain too wide and the urban amenities too few despite brave attempts to include parkettes and walking paths. The contrasts of urban form are too jarring; the bungalows and storefronts give way to 30 storey condo and offices towers, and without a design language to bring any sense of coherence. It looks a little like the sort of development one sees in developing countries in Asia: the need to accommodate growth trumps all other considerations. It's good that Toronto is intensifying, though I wonder if we could do it better, with a mix of densities and better, more appropriate infrastructure. This area needs more green space, bike lanes and transit before it starts to feel like a real urban neighbourhood.
Saw this on the Transport Politic twitter feed today, a site describing the benefits of an extension to Chicago's Red Line. I thought it was compelling how the site quantifies the benefits beyond the simple "jobs created" or "commute times shortened". By enhancing mobility, such transit investments deepen the labour pool, benefiting both workers and employers, and improve access to other amenities and social services, such as health care, education, public parks, and retail. Awareness of all the benefits of transit, economic and social, is essential to make the case for the public and policymakers to understand the need to build, and as a counterargument to those who view transit as an expensive frill that never pays for itself. Too bad no one was telling this story in Toronto 30 years ago before our city doubled in size and we added virtually no new transit capacity!
In the New City, nothing is too big or too small for municipal councillors to focus on, from half-billion-dollar sports arenas to plastic-bag bans and schemes aimed at preparing for extreme climate change.
A columnist today in the National Post was playing devil's advocate to the idea that cities should think big in planning and building for the future, calling this "utopian visions," implying that such a perspective takes away from the real work of cities, i.e. filling potholes. I think most cities in Canada actually do an excellent job of providing municipal services, and even maintaining their existing infrastructure given their limited tax bases, and the proclivity of provinces recently to download large assets to local government. But planning for the future, one where social, economic and environmental conditions are likely to be different from today, is also a key part of the mandate of cities. Building infrastructure is an essential part of this. The majority of public infrastructure in Canada is owned by municipal governments, and because it has suffered from decades of under-investment, it is increasingly an infrastructure built to suit a different era. Imagining a future-oriented infrastructure is an essential task for Canada's large cities, and I believe most citizens, confronted with the day to day challenges of affordable transportation, housing, recreation, and other issues, are on board with the idea that we need to aspire for something better than the status quo.
Had to post the above quote from a piece in todays Globe because it raises a major issue when it comes to the stewardship of public infrastructure - risk aversion. In most cases, outside a crisis, the lowest short term risk is to do nothing, and the Gardiner is an excellent case in point. Both politics and money keep governments from taking chances, or allowing experts to push the limits of innovation. I would say the some of this has been socialized through the narrative of public sector incompetence which, in my opinion, becomes self fulfilling. There are proven ways to innovate and share risk (such as P3s); let's hope the City keeps an open mind on the future of the Gardiner so we don't end up with a better built 1958 solution for a 2020+ Toronto.
“There’s no doubt that Canada is at the forefront of discussion around how to create more vibrant urban centres, increase density and build more sustainable cities,”
Huh? Oh, they mean condo towers, not public infrastructure... On a day when all the major news outlets are covering the crumbling Gardiner story (see my last post), I thought that this article in the Star reveals a very telling contrast in the fortunes of public and private sector development in Toronto, a city that, incredibly, leads the western world in private sector construction. It seems that the lowest interest rates since the Great Depression are having their intended effect (also with prices) except where the government itself is concerned. Many provinces and the federal government are running operating deficits but cry poverty at the prospect of borrowing long-term to fund long-lived infrastructure projects, which doesn't make much sense in terms aligning obligations and benefits. The issue of how to finance infrastructure is a huge one, and one I will cover more in the future, but it's worth noting that governments are pretty much the only entities in this country that have access to long term funding which traditionally was used to finance infrastructure, though rarely is anymore. Credit markets are working, as private borrowers know, they are just not working for infrastructure anymore, for reasons that appear to reflect our collective priorities more than anything else.
“It’s simply a matter of age,” said John Kelly, the city’s acting director of design and construction. “This section of the Gardiner [east of Jarvis] was built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Regardless of the amount of repair work that you put into it over that time period, eventually you’re going to require replacement.”
For as long as I can remember Toronto has talked about the Gardiner and proceeded to do nothing about it. This article from the Globe shows just how precarious a state the 55 year old road has reached, a stone's throw from becoming unsafe to drive on. What an apt manifestation of the ambivalence with which we regard infrastructure: one of the busiest roads in the largest city of one of the richest countries in the world, and it crumbles before our eyes. The problem is that an honest appraisal of the options, costs and benefits of the Gardiner will force us to confront many uncomfortable questions about infrastructure, among them, how we really feel about cars in the core of the city, and our idea that building a great city shouldn't cost too much (or anything ideally). It may be difficult to admit that sometimes roads are necessary, and that any solution will be complex, expensive and time-consuming. Given the strategic importance of the road, the solution should also involve all levels of government. It is a strange affectation in our Canadian polity that senior governments try to wriggle out of paying for urban infrastructure, where much of the wealth of the country is generated. The Gardiner is a municipal road but even the largest municipal government in the country, the City of Toronto, does not have the resources to fix it (let alone put it in a tunnel) alone.
Check out this series of articles from the Atlantic Cities site on four cities that are building their way to a more sustainable future. As you'll see the emphasis is on small projects that have the potential to lead to big changes, such as the repricing and repurposing of parking spaces in San Francisco. I think that the promise of something as mundane as parking to transform public spaces and behaviour is a good example of how using infrastructure as a policy tool need not be complex or expensive.
Calgary opened its west LRT line today, a $1.4 billion project to extend its C-Train system 9 km and 6 stations into the western suburbs. The Mayor, Premier and crowds turned out for the event amid much excitement. Calgary is making great strides on expanding its transit system (early this year an extension to the North-East LRT opened). Amazingly, for a city built on oil and gas, it has one of the highest per capita rates of transit use in North America, and has made a conscious choice to devote public resources away from roads towards transit. As part of this initiative, the city is developing transit-oriented development plans around many hub stations as parts of its official plan to encourage intensification. The city now has over 50 km of LRT, approximately similar to the length of Toronto's subway system.
Great article here about the progress on Toronto's waterfront revitalization including some very cool graphics and renderings. One gets a sense of the scale of work and investment required just to make this project possible: $831 million invested in largely unseen infrastructure over 10 years really to just make these new neighbourhoods possible. Exceptions to the unseen are the new parks such as Sherbourne Common and Don River Park that will provide beautifully designed public spaces for new residents as they arrive, and are great examples of socially relevant infrastructure and city building. We could benefit from replicating the principles behind the waterfront revitalization in many other parts of Toronto.
Hi! My name is Tom Broen and I've started this site to further my interest and begin a conversation on the subject of public infrastructure as a social catalyst. Please check out any of the resources on here and feel free to join the discussion.
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